Virtual Reality Memory Palaces

The ancient mnemonic “Method of Loci” has been in use for thousands of years. From memory competitors to students, the method helps to memorise items by combining visual and spatial cues. Many have perhaps heard of the technique through popular TV shows such as Sherlock or Hannibal, where their “Mind Palaces” or “Memory Palaces” are portrayed as a genius trait. The real method, however, is perfectly simple. And if you own a VR headset, it is even easier.

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Illustration based on “Mind Attic” by wonderful artist Tisserande. Original version without Head-Mounted Display can be found here.

But before we discuss how we can create our own Memory Palaces, or Mind Palaces, in VR, we should first discuss what a Memory Palace in fact is? In order to perform the method, you need a location; real or virtual. It should be a place you know well, for instance, your apartment or an environment from your favourite game. You further isolate several rooms, and sub-parts of those rooms, that amount to the number of things you want to recall. Next, you may want to have a certain route which you mentally walk through your Memory Palace. This is where the method comes in: you visualise what you want to recall at the given places in your Mind Palace. Need to go shopping? Imagine coffee beans poured out on the floor, orange juice cartons in the sofa, and bananas hanging on the TV. If you need to recall something more abstract, you can get creative and use the visualisation as an association to what you want to recall instead.

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Hannibal illustration. Virtual Reality Memory Palace.

This method is believed to be powerful because of the combination of information with visual cues (the visualisation of the memory items), and spatial cues (their given place in the environment). Curiously, however, this exploitation of the visual and spatial cues in the brain, does not involve our vision, or true perception of spatial three-dimensional spaces at all — only through our “inner eye” and our already-established memory of spatial environments. VR, however, may change this. Instead of adhering to the Memory Palace as something just residing in our minds, we may immerse ourselves in it, making it external as well as internal.

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“Get out — I need to go to my Mind Palace”. Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock  — Quite busy in his Memory Palace. Illustration of by edthatch.

Adapting the Memory Palace technique is thus a perfect task for the medium of Immersive Virtual Reality. With VR, we can perform this method with raw, fresh vision that gives us both the visual and spatial aspects of our Memory Palace. In VR, we are provided with a highly optimizable visuospatial environment made of software, which gives us the opportunity to tailor the Memory Palaces to our own needs. By exploiting the visuospatial elements of the Method of Loci in a much more explicit sense,  the method may perhaps work even better, or be more fun and easy to use.

Extending our Minds through Virtual Reality

Addressing this, I created a VR memory palace app as part of my master’s thesis, which has been continued through my PhD. The notion that we may extend our minds into the virtual, employing virtual tools that eventually will constitute the organization of our minds, is a potential great endeavour for Virtual Reality.

But that is enough talk for now. Let’s get practical. We have created two videos below at our YouTube Channel called AltVR. In the first one, we show you an example of a VR Memory Palace, where we detail its conceptual underpinnings.

In the second video below, we show you how you can create your own Virtual Reality Memory Palace on almost any VR headset. Hopefully, this can stimulate others to experiment with how we can extend our minds in Virtual Reality. We would love to hear what you end up creating!

[read more=”Literature list” less=”Literature list”]
Vindenes J., de Gortari A.O., Wasson B. (2018) Mnemosyne: Adapting the Method of Loci to Immersive Virtual Reality. In: De Paolis L., Bourdot P. (eds) Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Computer Graphics. AVR 2018. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 10850. Springer, Cham
[/read]

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Time Travel & Virtual Reality

Perhaps no dream is as universal, or as grand, as that of time travel. Being able to return to the glorious past, or speed away into the sci-fi future. Ever since humans began to have the notion of something happening now, this necessarily had to imply the future times later and the past times before. Human beings therefore relate to time, but not just as something outside us. Rather, we are constituted in terms of the temporal. Our capability of representation—in remembering the past and imagining the future—allows us to conceive of time: personally as the way in which existence is revealed to us, and inter-subjectively in terms of a numeric representation of the difference from one event to another.

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The Persistence of Time by Salvador Dali.

Time, then, is something inherently human. It’s existence is abstract, comparable in nature to a convention—a measurement—such as the meter. The meter does not reside in the plank being measured; it is a human convention made up so that humans can convene about the qualities of the plank. Similarly, time is not something that resides in the universe. As physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote in his beautiful, little book The Order of Time:

The difference between past and future, between cause and effect, between memory and hope, between regret and intention… in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, there is no such difference.

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Martin Heidegger Painting. Unknown artist.

Time as a Way of Perceiving the World

Instead of being a physical reality, time is the way in which we experience both the universe and our selves. Time is not first and foremost a cultural convention—although culture helps sustain it—in many ways we as humans are time. The way in which we are constituted, and the way in which the world is constituted for us, is according to temporality. In his magnum opus Being and Time, Martin Heidegger writes how Dasein—the way of being particular for human beings—is always being-ahead-of-itself; we project ourselves to certain future possibilities that are open for us, and in so doing we continuously define ourselves. Time for Heidegger is not the tick-tock of the clock, but a way in which we as humans are existentially constituted; the meaning in our here-and-now is given by the way our future possibilities present themselves to us.

Time, then, is not something we can simply manipulate without also changing the very way in which we exist. In addressing the theme of our discussion then, that of Time Travel, we can ask: What would happen if any future, or past, possibility were presented to us? Let us discuss the possibilities, and potential implications, of a Virtual Reality Time Machine.

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Collective Vision by Alex Grey

The Theoretical Possibility of a VR Time Machine

It is actually quite simple to imagine a kind of time machine that is at least theoretically possible to create. Just as we ourselves, to perceive time, need to be able to both remember (for the past) and imagine (for the future) our machine would have to be able to remember everything, that is store data (from the past), and be able to simulate any scenario (to generate the future). The latter requirement is where the technology of VR comes in.

Now, if humans generate the technology to store and compress all information about us and our environment, every second for every day—basically taking a backup of the world—then we could always go back to that point in Virtual Reality. If this machine had been designed way back, we would have the possibility to experience the past. Maybe you would want to grab a burger at a 1960s American diner, or get your beard cut in 1850s London? No problem.

Although this ultimate Time Machine, that requires the capture of all information in the whole world, sounds quite expensive to make and mildly put challenging in terms of privacy, we are nevertheless progressing towards something similar. Consider, for instance, how 3D scanning and photogrammetry is helping to store our cultural heritage; how cameras allow us to record precious moments in stereoscopic vision in 360-degrees; and volumetric video can even capture whole, dynamic environments in 3D and and 350/degrees. With the increase in the fidelity of the recordings, and also the VR displays through which we experience them, these technologies can be powerful tools in immersing ourselves in events of the past, as well as to simulate imagined versions of the future.

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Who, where, and when, do you want to be? Artwork: “Psychedelic Constructivism #6 ” by David Crunelle.

The Implications of the Virtual Reality Time Machine

Naturally, the capabilities of Virtual Reality to simulate time travel, that is, to provide any kind of experience comes with ethical problems. Many may have already seen the video of the mother being ‘reunited’ with her child, who was ‘brought to life’ in VR. It is terrifying to see her moving reaction, and the question immediately raises itself: is this something that we want? And what do we want? More specifically, given this freedom; who, where, and when, do you want to be?

We started this discussion by recognizing how we are constituted in terms of time. It is in the way in which we exist. It is, therefore, interesting to consider what would happen to our way of being, and our identity, if we blur the distinction between Past, Presence and Future. As we discussed deeply in The Existential Problem of VR, opening up for all future possibilities—which VR in its ultimate realization may do—is changing our existential relation to the world. The freedom that we have in choosing between A and B today is already existentially demanding. When VR will allow us not only to choose between A and B, but to define what A and B should even be from the start, we are given the total freedom, which again asks us for our absolute identity.

But maybe exactly this is our identity, only distilled into a higher form.
According to Heidegger, we are always in a state of becoming; we are always simultaneously present and moving away. Maybe to forever morph into different times, identities, and places is where humans are headed: immersed in their own stories and imagination, the capabilities that separates man from the animals: Dasein, the only being for whom Being is Being.

Did you like this content? Check out our related blog pieces.

In The Tao of Virtual Reality we discussed identity in relation to virtual worlds, starting from the Taoist story “The Dream of the Butterfly”

In The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality, we discussed how this question that VR poses us, of who we want to be, can be said to be existential and revelatory as to our core identity.

In A Virtual Masquerade, we discussed the peculiar nature of social VR, and how embodying avatars can provide new benefits and creative expression in communication.

In The Virtually Extended Mind, we discussed how we can extend our mind functions into the virtual, and so entertained the question of how we could design our new minds. 

And finally, in A Psychedelic Virtual Reality, we discussed the possibility of visual languages which defied the subject/object dualism. 

Also, check out our YouTube Channel, where we (amongst other things) read and visualize blog entries:

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The Tao of Virtual Reality

In Tao Te Ching, perhaps the most widely translated Eastern Philosophy texts of all time, we hear of the philosopher Chuang Tzu. One night, Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly. He dreamt that he was flying around from flower to flower and while he was dreaming he felt free, blown about by the breeze hither and thither. He was quite sure that he was a butterfly. But when he awoke he realised that he had just been dreaming, and that he was really Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly. But then Chuang Tzu asked himself the following question: was I Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly or am I now really a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang Tzu?

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Fractal butterfly. Unknown artist.

Eastern Philosophy and VR

How we identify, that is, how we define our selves—asking ourselves who we are—has been a central inquiry in Philosophy. It is usually this question that the world religions claim to answer. We seek an answer that may soothe us, or an answer that at any rate makes sense in relation to our general experience of being-in-the-world. This latter point is crucial: we desire meaning, wholeness.  We want our lives to be purposeful. There is supposed to be something to do here, an end to be achieved, and we feel that it should be of importance.

Self & Identity in Virtual Worlds

Now—who we are can be answered in two ways, and they are both principally the same, as either will have to imply the other. If we are to define who we are as humans, then we must, necessarily, define our selves in relation to the world we inhabit. Similarly, if we choose to define the world, the definition of our world would have to include our role towards it, as worlds can not be accessed except through experience.

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Fractal tree. Unknown artist.

Let us imagine a virtual world to exemplify this.  Imagine a virtual world,  covered in a vast forest. In this world, we situate a  subject in the avatar of a strong woodchopper. Now,  the concept of the woodchopper being strong is meaningless in itself, he can only be said to be strong in relation to a particular world where the trees are weaker than him. Similarly, if we create a virtual world with very hard trees, the notion of the trees being hard, is absolutely meaningless unless as understood in relation to a certain woodchopper, for whom the trees are hard. 

Now of course, this is just basic logic, but it is nevertheless very useful in ideation of our future virtual worlds. As we have been discussing throuh various entries, such as From thought to realityThe Existential Problem of VRand The Virtually Extended Mind, with the arrival of ultimate VR we will be able to design our selves; manifest our thoughts and desires; and in so doing, realizing our selves outside of ourselves. In doing so, to guide our perspective, we must know that we can not create worlds independent of our selves; what is objective is in relation to our subjectivity. A certain virtual world will have to imply a certain virtual self—the technological material of virtual reality that is shaped in to a certain world will also shape us in our existential relation to that world.

yinyang - The Tao of Virtual Reality
Yin Yang Mandala.

In philosophy and design research, such a perspective on the mediating qualities of technology—that is, how technology co-constitutes perceived subjectivity and objectivity inour experience—is known as postphenomenology. Just like its phenomenological roots (for instance Heidegger), this Western philosophy is quite related to themes from Eastern philosophy, for instance as illustrated by the Yin/Yang. Just as a certain subjectivity implies an objectivity, and a certain objectivity implies another subjectivity—the traditional Eastern symbol of Yin/Yang similarly shows how Yin implies Yang and Yang implies Ying. But what may such Eastern Philosophy and VR have in common in this regard?

These perspectives can be particularly fruitful for researchers who are investigating the mediating qualities of interactive applications, like VR environments. For instance, if I am in a virtual simulation, controlling a supersonic spaceship, it is not only me—that is, my subjectivity—which is altered. As I become able to navigate, the world—that is, what I adhere to as objectivity—also changes to become more accessible to me. Thus, the technology of the spaceship mediates a certain way of relating to the world, constituting me as a certain subject, and simultaneously, the virtual environment as a certain virtual world.

At this point we have laid the philosophical groundwork making us ready to explore the question of this entry:

Who Are We In Virtual Reality?

Chuang Tzu’s dream and subsequent merry doubt is a simple story that illustrates the flexibility of human identity. Although we usually manage to keep a solid persona and perceive our egos as relatively fixed, it is curious how malleable they are. Consider for instance how, when you are with your parents or relatives, how you are someone completely different from when you’re with your friends—and an even more different character may emerge when alone with your significant other. Beyond simple social situations as mediators of personalities and experiences, phenomena like dreams, or psychedelic drugs, also show how the human mind has the capability of radically altering what it identifies with. And not least, meditation and other forms of contemplation, can radically change our outlook on life in terms of how we identify and approach our existence.

Most exciting of all, however, Virtual Reality can also change our selves.

In our piece on Virtual Embodiment, we explored the ways in which thorough, bodily identification with a virtual avatar, can have profound behavioral effects. It can help against racism, by embodying people in other skin colours; help against violence by placing offenders as victims; it can cause a rise in cognitive performance by being embodied as someone smart, and, last but not least, as we discuss in The Virtual Freud, it can be therapeutic in allowing us a more compassionate outlook on our selves. 

Who Do You Want To Be?

The point which we often come to at Matrise, albeit from various perspectives, is to ask our selves a question. Lying in between Philosophy and VR, the question it poses is: who do we want to be? What virtual worlds will we create in the future, and who will we be, as subjects, within those worlds?

For the interested reader, who wants to further pursue this question from various other perspectives, can go on to explore this through these other entries, many of which touch upon Western- and Eastern Philosophy and VR.

In The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality, we discussed how this question that VR poses us, of who we want to be, can be said to be existential and revelatory as to our core identity.

In A Virtual Masquerade, we discussed the peculiar nature of social VR, and how embodying avatars can provide new benefits and creative expression in communication.

In The Virtually Extended Mind, we discussed how we can extend our mind functions into the virtual, and so entertained the question of how we could design our new minds. 

For more Eastern Philosophy and VR, check out our entry on Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Virtual Reality.

And finally, in A Psychedelic Virtual Reality, we discussed the possibility of visual languages which defied the subject/object dualism. 

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A Virtual Masquerade

In 18th century Paris, for the Friday evening thrill, you could attend a Masquerade—a social event where guests wore masks to conceal their identity. The masquerades were socially perceived as liberating and stimulating, as you could leave your original identity behind—that old toil you have been dragging along for years and years! At a masquerade, you could enjoy the freedom of being anyone and mingle with anyone else, free to assume any identity you would.

It is towards such parties my mind wanders when I am socializing with strangers in Virtual Reality. Each clothed in an avatar, perhaps even of their own construction—often roleplaying bizarre personas—the experience is stimulating and sometimes… too much. In this piece, we will discuss some of the Philosophy behind Social VR.

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Cutout from The Naked Masquerade by Nancy Farmer.

The Social Web

The benefit that VR provides as a social medium, is its wholesome and rich expression. It is a medium with great possibilities of avoiding perceivable abstraction of the presented information. Essentially, this means that VR has the capability to mimic real life in ways other mediums can not; VR presents its information in the format of reality. Given this, it makes sense why the largest social network chose to buy the largest VR company in 2016. Not only was this seen as a proof of VR reaching maturity—it also speaks of the social ambitions for the medium. Eventually, VR may give way to solutions for social and affective communication that, in many ways, is the complete opposite of the way social networks work today (with textual profiles, smileys, emoticons, and other abstractions of emotions.) VR has the possibility of transferring, instead of classifying, all of our body language—and current work on recognition of facial expressions while in VR is really impressive.

In this entry, however, we will be discussing the current reality of social VR. We will start with the mad hatter in our VR universe; VRChat.

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Masquerades were popular parties in the 18th century. Illustration: ‘The World in Masquerade’, 1720, The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Virtual Masquerade

The ability to hide your identity, and simultaneously convene in a wholesome way, has many benefits. Thinking of this theme, I am first reminded of how Journalist Yusuf Omar used Snapchat AR filters to allow rape survivors in India to tell their stories anonymously. With the use of VR also, there are numerous of beautiful stories that illustrates the potential of this kind of anymous, yet wholesome, expression. For instance, YouTube channel Syrmor exclusively performs interviews through VR—where you can watch people telling personal stories through VRChat. Watch, for instance, how this kid opens up about getting bullied, or this video where a guy talks about getting taken away from his mom. The stories are beautiful and you feel an intimate connection to those who tell them. Another fantastic example of the expressiveness that follows VR communication which I always show in my lectures, is this video where a guy is suffering a seizure, and the group discusses how they can help him. This would not have played out the same way if conveyed through another medium.

The way I see it, the contrast of the absurd avatars and environment—combined with the deep, personal stories—create a remarkable fusion of meaning that challenges how we normally experience these emotions. The beautiful comes through the unexpected, which alters the experience.

It should be noted, however, that this is not necessarily a typical VRChat experience. This video is more illustrative of the chaos that these worlds also lay the grounds for.

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Vishnu is said to have ten “avatars”, the most known being Rama and Krishna.

Avatars as an Existential Problem

Now, what may Philosophy bring to the analysis of Social VR?  Discussions on the current, or future, nature of social relations through VR has some philosophical implications. In our entry on Hinduism and Virtual Reality, we discussed the etymology of the word “Avatar” from the Sanskrit “Avatāra,” meaning “to descend,” and thus referring to the Gods visiting mortals. Avatars in the context of social VR, is a necessity as we need a body to clothe and express our selves. People have always been especially fond of their characters in MMORPGs, which only goes to tell the potential future importance of ownership in worlds where we actually inhabit them. With the magical powers of Virtual Embodiment as well as the combination of the strong self-expression and self-identification that these avatars can facilitate for, the role of these kinds of representations can end up being very important and meaningful for our lives.

The Philosophy of Social VR

Now, a philosophical theme that is possible to consider in relation to this is how the question of who you want to be in VR—how you want to represent yourself—is essentially an existential question. In VR, we are given the freedom to express ourselves without any pre-given limitations. In this way, through the medium of VR, we may one day be able to express our selves as we want, in fundamental terms.

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Illustration of Terence McKenna, a thinker with unique perspectives on the potential of VR communication.

In trying to imagine how we may communicate in the social worlds of the future, we will quote a section from a previous entry at Matrise called A Psychedelic Virtual Reality where we discuss an idea by Terence McKenna, that details how VR may be used to convey visual languages:

In referencing Lanier’s interesting embodiment experiences, where he turned himself into a lobster, McKenna imagines how humans can choose to be like octopi — in how octopi communicate ‘telepathically’ by wearing their inner life on their outer manifestation, so dissolving the boundaries between people. He writes:

“in the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand, [the octopus] does not transmit its linguistic intent, it becomes its linguistic intent.”

In other words, McKenna envisions how VR can allow us to quite literally wear our hearts on our sleeves, and approach a unity between appearance and being. McKenna calls this “visible languages”, and imagines how these may make it possible to “overcome the subject/object dualism as well as the self/other dualism”. 

The question we are left with in considering this, then, is: Who do you really want to be? Or at least, how do you really want to be perceived?

And based on this, how will the social VR worlds of the future look like?


For the interested reader, Matrise has written entries that are similar in theme to this entry. Although not explicitly discussing the Philosophy of Social VR, these entries deal with how themes around how we identify and represent our selves in virtual worlds:

In The Existential Problem of VR, we discuss philosophically the themes that this entry has raised in a deeper manner.

In The Experience Machine, we discussed how Nozick’s thought experiment of the potential Experience Machine, a thought experiment aimed to test Hedonism, is related to VR.

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves. This may be regarded as a partial answer to the thought experiment that this entry has discussed: what would we like to do presented the opportunity?

Similarly, In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled  the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech. The religious-philosophical system similarly concerns the dilemma of omnipotence: what would you do if you were God?

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The Virtually Extended Mind

In this entry on the VR mind, we will discuss some ideas of (living!) Philosopher David Chalmers in relation to Immersive Virtual Reality. We will discuss how we may virtually extend our minds, and what kind of VR Minds we would like to create.

Let us start off with a few words from the man himself:

Virtual Reality technology is wonderful for a philosopher because it brings alive some of the greatest philosophical questions — David Chalmers

In the installment from which the above quote was taken, the distinguished philosopher and consciousness researcher goes on to mention Descartes’ suspicion of the external world as an evil illusion—in addition to the more recent theories by Nick Bostrom that discusses the probability that our reality is illusory. Indeed, one of the benefits of the virtual is that it may provoke new ways of viewing the real. What Chalmers mention here is one of the reasons why VR is interesting for philosophers.

Matrise has for the last few years been discussing themes like these, for instance in our entry on The Experience Machine as well as in our three-series entry on Heidegger, both in which we discuss the notion of authenticity in relation to being in virtual reality. Beyond such «principal» themes, however, VR can offer way more for philosophers than just a stir in the age-old questions of philosophy. Today we will review some newer ideas and discuss their relevance for the technology of VR.

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David Chalmers. Photo by Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times—originally from this article. Further edited by Matrise.

Chalmers is very right, however, in that VR acts as a catalysator for thought. Why, it can even be said to pose an existential problem to us. As we recently covered in depth, technologies, in certain ways, are a way of human exteriorisation—a way for humans to realise themselves outside of themselves. As VR, at least in conceptual terms, is a technology capable of realising anything, we can perceive of it as an existential problem as this freedom forces us to reflect on what we value and want, and thus who we are—if we accept the premise that what we externalise can tell us who we are.

In this entry, we will take to imagining such future realities, and bring Chalmers ideas with us on the ride. Not his paralleling VR and Descartes’ evil demon, however, but by returning to some of Chalmers’ own ideas and hypotheses on the extended mind.

The Extended Mind

In 1998, together with Andy Clark, David Chalmers published a paper describing an idea under the name of “The Extended Mind.” The central question which they approach is where our minds stop and where the world begins. Where is the boundary, in other words, between the dualism of self and other, and to which degree is the brain the mind, or the mind the brain? The philosophers deal with this theme in arguing that the tools and technologies we use become part of our minds, and so we extend our selves into the world.

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Where do we end and the world begin? Artwork by M.C. Escher.

A brilliant introduction to this idea is Chalmers’ Ted Talk in which he presents the central thesis. In the talk, Chalmers parallels this view to the perhaps better known examples of bodily extensions or embodiments; for instance in how blind people’s canes work as an extension of their body. This is exactly the same principle as Merleau-Ponty’s  woman with a feathered hat which he presents in his Phenomenology of Perception; in which her bodily consciousness seem to float even out into the tip of the feather, and so she avoids breaking it.

Chalmers point is that we are outsourcing certain mind functions to machines—such as recalling phone numbers—to our phones. Similarly, spatial navigation and information is offloaded to Google Maps. Now, few would argue against the fact that technologies are performing important functions for us. Chalmers point, however, can not be reduced to understanding these technologies as tools, his argument is that they are literally becoming a part of our minds, although they are not wired directly to our brain.

The Mind / Body Problem

Now, as we said, this is touching upon the mind/brain problem: to which extent can the mind be reduced to, or traced back to, the brain? This question is not as easy as it may first seem. Obviously, if we cap someone on the head, they become unconscious and so, apparently, no mind. It may from this, naïvely, be deduced that thus the mind is the brain. When the mind is operating, however, it is harder to reduce it as it extends and uses what it perceives to operate its functions.

In addressing this problem, we can thus ask: what is so special about the inside of the brain, that only this part should have the special features constituting our mind? If something is going on outside it, as long as it is driving the processes in the brain in the same way, there is no principal difference lying in the skull separating it from the world. If the information structures you are using for your processing is stored in your local hard drive or in the cloud: does it matter? Are they not both a part of your computer, in principal terms?

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Artwork depicting a Memory or Mind Palace by Stuart Kolakovic.

The Virtually Extended Mind: A Palace?

Here we reach the point of our entry. If our minds can be extended into our physical world, how may we extend it into the virtual? In other words, a perspective that can be had in imagining the virtual worlds of the future, is to view them as extensions of our minds. What tools, then, should we use, develop and adopt during our thought processes? What would constitute our VR minds?

A good example of this that we have previously discussed at Matrise has been Memory Palacesarranging information visuo-spatially in order to better preserve it. Beyond this concrete utilisation, however, we can also imagine not memory palaces, but mind palaces. These can be personalised, meaningful places, from which we can gain sustenance, peace or productivity. They can be filled with various tools: for emotional healing, meditation, work, relaxation or entertainment. These rooms can be viewed as extensions of our minds and a way for us to immersive our selves and synchronise our selves to the various activities which we want to carry out.

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Mind Palace Illustration. Unknown artist.

The way this is related to VR as an existential problem, as we recently discussed, is that the concept of VR is asking our opinion in a different sense than normal technologies. It is not a question of whether we want A or B, but fundamentally, from the start, what would we like to see, or in other words, who do we want to be; or as Bruce Mau’s God-like question is formulated: now that we can do anything, what will we do?

What would you have in your Mind Palace, could you choose? What would constitute your VR mind?

Conclusion

I will conclude this entry with a quote from Hannibal by Thomas Harris:

Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr. Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s on harp.


The interested reader can go on to these entries which are similar in theme:

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.

In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars and so help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In A Psychedelic Virtual Reality we discussed how VR may take inspiration from psychedelic drugs and facilitate for non-dual states of consciousness through the merging of self and other.

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The Existential Problem of VR

Søren Kierkegaard, the father of Existentialism, famously described anxiety, or angst, as the dizziness of freedom. Hardly a cheerful fellow—though his brilliant, satirical wit often forces one to smile—Kierkegaard clearly was no stranger to this “dizziness” he so often spoke of:

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it. You will regret both.

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Søren Kierkegaard by Michael Newton.

Oh dear. Despite the gloom, however, these small drops of the Danish philosopher serve to illustrate his role as a great inspiration for the existential movement within Philosophy. Existentialism is existential in the sense that it is not concerned with the thinking cogito as the starting point of human reasoning. Rather, existential philosophy could be said to be more wholesome in that it is concerned with its taking seriously the human condition of alienation—our tendency towards existential dread. The critique that existentialism holds against traditional philosophy is that it has been too locked up in cognitive schemes, thoughts and abstractions, and in so doing distanced itself from the lived experience of being human, with all that this entails, not adhering to the givens of existence.

Existentialism vs Nihilism & Pessimism

Just to be clear, however, existentialism is not the same thing as advocating a kind of nihilism or a philosophical pessimism, as warned by the existentialist Friedrich Nietzche and held by Arthur Schopenhauer and Peter Wessel Zapffe, the latter holding that to bear children into this world is like bringing wood to a burning fire. No, in addition to the gloomy writings of Kierkegaard expressing the problem to be dealt with, he is also concerned with a solution, however hopeless. Though holding that life does not come with a manual, existentialists are nevertheless concerned with authenticity, or meaning—just understood and found in a different way. Even Albert Camus, whose famous essay on The Myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus is condemned to roll a stone up a mountain only to watch it roll down again ad infinitum holds that, though this is absurd in the literal sense, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This always reminds me of a Zen story;

When Mu-chou was asked, “We dress and eat every day, and how do we escape from having to put on clothes and eat food?” Mu-chou answered, “We dress; we eat.”

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Jean-Paul Sartre, another existential thinker. Painting by Patrick Rork

So. The giveaway point of this brief introduction is that existentialism starts from existence. It it is not concerned with any philosophical beliefs or notions prior to this point, in other words, humans and their essential role are not pre-given. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, which further has been descriptive of the existential movement as a whole: existence precedes essence; we exist before we define ourselves, and moreover, this decision is one that necessarily must be taken alone, without hiding behind any authority in order to outsource our freedom.

It is exactly this—how we define our selves—which will be the topic of this entry: how technologies, and especially the technology of VR, may play a part in the shaping of our identity. We will discuss the relation between Existentialism and VR in howVR may pose an existential problem to us as individuals and together as a society,

The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality

So what may Existentialism say about VR? The existentialists highlight the freedom of the individual subject in altering, or at any rate defining, his or her interpretation of reality, or even ‘rendering’ or ‘creation’ of it. But how may it be that VR can be connected to this? To make our point, we will look to the phenomenological technology criticism movement that followed Heidegger’s exposition of technology.

In his book series Technics and Time, Bernhard Stiegler argues that technology show us who we are. Stiegler discusses technologies as a way of human externalisation in which we are realising our selves outside of ourselves. Moreover, for Stiegler, this also works the other way around: having externalised our self through technology, we also internalise it yet again, adopting it as parts of our identity. Effectively, therefore, VR can be said to be an expression of our selves in fundamental terms—and this expression we later use as imagery for our selves. 

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Bernhard Stiegler.

Now, what does this mean to us? The point which we wish to argue here, is that in being presented with a medium that is, conceptually at any rate, infinite in terms of what it can do, and further who we can become within it, we are faced with an existential problem.

The existential problem that we are faced with, and will be faced with ever more so when the technologies get more sophisticated, can be framed as follows: Now that we can do anything; what will we do? If we consider the point of Stiegler, that technology show us who we are, when we now have the technology to create anything in terms of our experience, VR is essentially asking us who we are, or at any rate, who we want to become. We are being given the question of who we want to become through what we want to do, by the technology allowing this freedom.

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Jaron Lanier, depicted in this painting by Darwin Price, has been a giant influence to VR technology. Not just in terms of his contributions to the commercialisation of the technology, but also experimentation and philosophy.

Conclusion: Existentialism and VR

In this piece, we discussed VR and Existentialism, in how VR asks us an existential question. Naturally, to answer this question is as a thought experiment an individual concern. But in terms of our shared reality, it will be a collective future in how it is conducted and externalised. Jaron Lanier in his book The Dawn of the New Everythin,  similarly to Stiegler wrote how VR more than any other technology, will show us who we are. The technology of VR is asking us to choose, not in an either/or situation—not a question of yes and no—but asking us to define everything by will.

The question for us is who we want to be and further what worlds we would like to dwell in; an even more radical freedom than our current situation of free choice given the circumstances. With future technology perhaps, or today through enacting it as a thought experiment, entertaining the notion may be an interesting way to ponder on who we are through what we want to do.


For the interested reader, Matrise has written entries that are similar in theme to this entry, that of VR and Existentialism. For instance:

In The Experience Machine, we discussed how Nozick’s thought experiment of the potential Experience Machine, a thought experiment aimed to test Hedonism, is related to VR.

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves. This may be regarded as a partial answer to the thought experiment that this entry has discussed: what would we like to do presented the opportunity?

Similarly, In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled  the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech. The religious-philosophical system similarly concerns the dilemma of omnipotence: what would you do if you were God?

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A Psychedelic Virtual Reality

In his book «Dawn of the New Everything» Jaron Lanier, often called the father of VR, wrote that the question he was most asked in the 1980s was to which degree VR was similar to LSD. Not a psychonaut himself, however, Lanier was not necessarily one to compare the two — he writes how he never even smoked cannabis, which was even more common in the tech circles at the time. Nevertheless, the parallel between the two, VR and Psychedelics, is still an interesting one, as both have the power to present us to other worlds, and change our self-consciousness. So much so, that Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist who quit his job to become one of the most prominent leading figures of the hippie movement, would call VR «digital LSD».

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Jaron Lanier, portrait by Maciej Mackiewicz. Lanier started VPL Research, the first commercial company to produce and sell immersive VR systems. His story can be read in his biography “Dawn of the New Everything”.

VR as a digital psychedelic

In his book, Lanier describes how he tried to talk Leary out of constantly presenting VR as a digital psychedelic to the press when it had its first popular wave in the 80s.  We are probably better off for it; neither Leary nor psychedelics have had the best associations over the years. The hippie counterculture didn’t really change the world much for the better and the rather irresponsible movement, in turn, became ridiculed. Now that VR is a known thing in its own right, however, there is perhaps room to compare them once more, without the risk of staining the technology as just another way to “drop out”. Psychedelics are also starting to get a somewhat better image, with more research highlighting good effects in the treatment of various disorders — just as is currently happing with VR tech.

With psychedelics, we refer to drugs such as LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT. These are powerful drugs that give visual and auditory hallucinations — that alters the subjective perception of time and identity, and further the relationship of one’s self to the world. Psychedelics are very weird stuff — we do not know much about them. The war on drugs and the hippie movement made proper research on the substances quite unfashionable — there was almost a forty year gap in which no research, whatsoever, was done. This ban on psychedelic research is starting to lift, however, and we now see more research investigating its effects on disorders such as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, etc (for those interested in proper research on these drugs, a group to follow is the Psychedelic Research Unit at John Hopkins University).

In this entry, however, we will focus on the parallel between Immersive Virtual Reality and VR, rather than discussing the newest research on psychedelics. To start off, we will turn to an author who has had few things to say on the subject when VR was still more of a concept than a full-blown reality. We will discuss the utterings of Terence McKenna.

Terence McKenna

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Terence McKenna: Author on psychedelic drugs, and theoretical (far-out and quite crazy) speculator.

Having read several books of Terence McKenna, including Food of the Gods, True Hallucinations, The Invisible Landscape, and for this entry The Archaic Revival — it is very obvious that McKenna was quite mad in his own way. Having taken that much, well, drugs, it may not come as a surprise, but at least he is leaving us with plenty of material to discuss the subject matter. No one can blame him for not having taken enough psychedelics, and he actually also immersed himself in the topic of VR — being one of the few lucky who got to try the technology at that time, though it yet was in its infancy.

VR as the Crucible of Self and Other

Terence McKenna’s book The Archaic Revival comprises several interviews and essays. One of the essays presented there was first published in Magical Blend in the winter of 1990, and was according to McKenna himself one of the very first pieces to examine potential future implications of VR technology. In the piece, McKenna imagines how VR can dissolve the boundaries of Self and Other. In referencing Lanier’s interesting embodiment experiences, where he turned himself into a lobster, McKenna imagines how humans can choose to be like octopi — in how octopi communicate ‘telepathically’ by wearing their inner life on their outer manifestation, so dissolving the boundaries between people. He writes:

“in the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand, [the octopus] does not transmit its linguistic intent, it becomes its linguistic intent.”

In other words, McKenna envisions how VR can allow us to quite literally wear our hearts on our sleeves, and approach a unity between appearance and being. McKenna calls this “visible languages”, and imagines how these may make it possible to “overcome the subject/object dualism as well as the self/other dualism”. This vision, hope or potential for the technology was in McKenna’s case inspired from psychedelic visions taking psilocybin-containing mushrooms and a brew traditionally concocted in the Amazon basin, called Ayahuasca, which contains an orally active version of the highly psychedelic drug DMT.

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Artwork by Alex Grey, representing the visuals one may encounter on DMT.

Common for psychedelic experiences, at least in high doses, is some of the effects that McKenna here envisions that VR can provide for us. Under the influence of these drugs, people can experience a unification of themselves and the world. If the effects of this unity is somewhat mild, it may help to combat a general anxiety and alienation. If the effect is very strong, however, it may obliterate all sense of “self” or “subject” in the experience, an experience that is commonly referred to as “ego death”. This aspect of experience has strong parallels within the mystics of the world religions, where the ultimate aim of the asceticism and meditation is union with God.

The question then arises, how on earth could such a vision be fulfilled through information technology such as VR? Can VR allow new languages and aid in the experiential break away from Cartesian dualism?

A Controlled Accident

“In the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand”. This sentence hints at a one-ness between symbol and meaning — in that we do not see the communication of the octopus first, and then interpret it later. There is, in other words, no “inner” of the octopus that needs to be abstracted or reduced before it can manifest as “outer”. There is no octopus first, and then communication later. This can perhaps be understood, but how can VR aid in something as radically weird as this?

We have previously at Matrise, discussed something very relevant to this. By using VR in sensory deprivation tanks — essentially all you see and feel is virtual, and this can be a first step in making your inner life reflected in your outer reality. If what you sense in the virtual world is a visualisation based on heart rhythm, brain sensors, etc., you may, over time, get a different relationship to the outer world. This neurofeedback can provide interesting loops, where a corresponding change in your psyche has an immediate representation in the outer world, and this in turn changes your psyche and so ad infinitum, hypothetically inducing a sense of harmony between inner and outer.

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Screenshot from “Deep Reality” by Amores et al. The application features an underwater environment in which fluorescent beings are procedurally generated based on your physiological state.

Lately, there has been more and more interesting work in this direction. At this years SIGGRAPH, Judith Amores presented a VR experience that aims to use unconscious biofeedback to induce relaxation via subtle visual & audio changes that are in sync with your heart and brain. At this year’s CHI, also, we saw “Inter-Dream“, a neurofeedback VR visualisation to promote calm/rest/sleep. At the same conference, I partook in a philosophy workshop, where I briefly presented a position paper describing such designs, as “existentialist” — in how they have an aim in opening us to experience, enhancing meaningful perceptions. In the abstract, it is described like this:

The aim of the existentialist designer is to not dominate the user experience, but rather to design for a controlled accident in which the medium itself is explored, and one’s self through the medium, where the overarching purpose is the exploration itself. This line of thinking is inspired by existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and its aim can be illustrated in how Kierkegaard discusses life not as a ‘problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’ The hope is that such an approach towards technology escapes the somewhat limited view of technology as simply a tool to get from A to B, and that technology may be seen as a lens through which reality can be presented free from an otherwise culturally enframing narrative. The aim is, therefore, to design technology as a catalysator for a more original revealing of truth.

This is what I believe has to be the trick for VR. It has to have the ability to surprise us, to let us explore — not just virtual environments, but through them gain access to parts of ourselves we did not know existed. We need to be experimental, play with the boundaries of our identities, avatars and worlds. VR is a question of what we want to become. It has the possibility to, in the words of McKenna, “release humanity into the imagination”.

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Screenshot from Kevin Mack’s newest VR experience, “Anandala“.

Conclusion: VR & Psychedelics

To conclude this entry, I want to bring the focus towards artist Kevin Mack. I heard of him through the Voices of VR podcast (episode #798). Mack creates VR experiences that attempts to give just what we have discussed in this entry: a surprise. In “Blortasia”, which is the only one of his I’ve tried, you fly around in this surreal, psychedelic landscape of “blorts”. Some of these blorts, however, behave based on you — and has an artificial intelligent element to them. Many report interesting experiences in relating to these blorts. I can’t help thinking of McKenna’s “self-transforming machine elves”, that he allegedly encountered on his various DMT trips. You can check out Blortasia on our YouTube channel AltVR:

These applications are a progress and I believe we should continue to aim for magical virtual realities, when we have under our creative control a medium of very few constraints. Like Slater and Sanchez-Vives wrote in their state-of-the-art paper “Enhancing Our Lives With Immersive Virtual Reality“: “[…] the real power of VR is not necessarily to produce a faithful reproduction of ‘reality’ but rather that it offers the possibility to step outside of the normal bounds of reality and realize goals in a totally new and unexpected way.” In light of this, we may ask ourselves how VR can take inspiration from psychedelics in their design. What are the transformative features particular to psychedelics that may be adapted to VR?

If anyone knows of similar work or ideas, please don’t hesitate to comment below or write to Matrise.


This entry is at the core of Matrise’s interests. If you found this entry on VR and Psychedelics interesting, you may also enjoy some of our other entries or YouTube videos.

As for videos, check out this simulation of an Ayahuasca Seremony:

Regarding blog pieces:

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.

In Virtual Embodiment we discuss how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled  the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech.

In From Thought To Reality  we discussed VR as the materialiser of form, or the instantiator of the abstract. We discuss this with imagery from Tolkien and Heidegger’s philosophy.

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Hinduism and Virtual Reality

In this piece, we discuss the relationship between Hinduism and Virtual Reality. The cosmology of the religion category “Hinduism”; the broad metaphysic of the East, is a very interesting one. Radically different from that of the West, it is a refreshing albeit heavy shower of new ideas. The best pitch to the worldview at large, I find is best put by “spiritual entertainer” Alan Watts, who put it something like this:

Imagine you are God. Or rather — imagine you could be anything you wanted. Your will is the law of the universe. What would you do if this was the state of affairs? Well, obviously, you would throw a few parties. Really stretch it out, go crazy and mess things up for the laughs of it. The universe is your experience machine; so you do whatever you like.

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Digital illustration of Alan Watts by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

So you continue to throw these crazy parties and daring adventures for a couple hundred, or million, of years. Simply testing the limits, doing everything in your mind that can give you pleasure or kick. After a while, however, you find that you have gone out of things to do in «God mode». At least, you want something radically different. A surprise.

So you try and plan to surprise yourself. But as an omnipotent being, this is kind of hard. The curse of being all-knowing and omnipotent is, of course, despite the supreme bliss, that it’s hard to get a true kick out of it anymore. You lack the element of surprise. Surprise, as reaction, needs duality, but you are One. Just as we can’t tickle ourselves, we can’t sneak up on yourself and say «Boo!». There is another option, however; the option of deliberate illusion as to your self. You can create the illusion of splitting — and create a seeming duality within the oneness that constitutes your being.

Through abstraction, you can form the opposite of the distinct quality of your being. From the absolute one, you can conceive of the relative two — by contrast of your endless revealing as God, you conceive of a finite concealment as Man. By hiding your true nature from yourself, its revealing would, in turn, be magnificent; you enter down low to later enjoy your own highness. Though with the potential of the gruesomeness that may result from this fall, you know in the decision, that you will always wake up again to eternal bliss. The ecstasy is inevitable.

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Now — at first, you may only dare to go into the depths of time and space for a few hours. The experience is intense: the contrast of transitioning from mortality to godhood was quite ecstatic. Now — your courage grows stronger the more experienced you are, and your adventures go on to wilder and wilder dreams. You go on more and more adventures where you forget who you are, until you find yourself — right here and right now — as a human being reading blogs online.

Thus, according to Hindu cosmology each of us lives in illusion as to what is the core reality of our selves. Life can be seen as a play, and we are still playing — Brahman, the actor that plays all the parts, totally immersed and engaged in them so it forgets its real self, and instead is amusing itself in its ignorance. Reality, then, is a game of hide and seek, where you are both the hider and the seeker, playing for eternity.

The Parallels between Hinduism & VR

So how is Hinduism related to Virtual Reality? The parallels between this ancient creation myth and our dream of ultimate virtual reality may be almost too obvious: it is that of deliberate illusion. Naturally, human beings are not like to gods, but VR as a powerful illusion comes with the power to create and control worlds, to instantiate our thoughts, and actualize our designs. In our recent entry, «From Thought to Reality», we commented and discussed this technological tendency in humans in depth, in how technology in general, but VR in particular, represents «the dream of being able to define reality, to create a representation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago.» Essentially, VR is a product of the creative element in humans, for good and for worse. The dream of absolute control over matter, but also, the dream of a creative medium without limitations.

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The word Avatar, frequently used in VR contexts, has its origin in the Sanskrit word «Avatāra», which means «to descend». It usually refers to when the Hindu gods to take an earthly incarnation.

So, while the Hindu myth had its aim to go from control to chaos and adventure: our dream with VR may be to go from chaos to control. We do not go from One to Dual, and although we may not yet be able to use it to get from Dual to One — it is worthwhile to consider its potential for art and change of our selves.

As Jaron Lanier put it in his book “The Dawn of the New Everything”, VR will, more than any other medium, show us who we are. It will quite simply be interesting to encounter our will and desires as expressed through the worlds we create. We have already begun this investigation and below we mention and interrelate what we have discussed here at Matrise in regards to VR’s potential for art and change of our selves.

Virtual Reality and the Self

The potential of VR for art, expression, and deep impression has been the topic in many of our entries:

In Virtual Embodiment we discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.

Last but not least, however, in our last few entries, we have looked to VR as a possible way to escape our enframing, classifying control over nature, as discussed in our three-series entry on Heidegger’s technology critique:

In Existentialist Design, we accommodate Heidegger and Kierkegaard’s concerns and try to imagine, perhaps once again, how we may surprise our selves. The danger of surrounding ourselves in our designs, and classifying the world and its materials as means to our ends, is perhaps that we may not meet anything new — our as put by Heidegger, that it may be denied to Man to enter into a more original revealing.

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VR in floatation tanks is one idea meant to exemplify the idea of “Existentialist Design”, designing for a controlled accident in which the outcome is not known. Illustration by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

In the position paper the entry depicts, we imagine the use of VR in sensory deprivation tanks. The design is meant to be a facilitator for a controlled accident in which the medium itself is explored, and one’s self through the medium — where the overarching purpose is the exploration itself. This line of thinking is inspired by existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and its aim can be illustrated in how Kierkegaard discusses life not as a ‘problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’ The hope is that the technology may be seen as a lens through which reality can be presented free from an otherwise culturally enframing narrative. The aim is, therefore, to design technology as a catalysator for a more original revealing of truth.

So then, perhaps the Hindu myth isn’t the worst parallel after all. Hinduism and Virtual Reality have striking parallels in conceptual terms, and the Sanskrit word «Maya», may mean illusion, but equally as much Art. And it is Art which may prove the saving power according to Heidegger, as it opens us up to new interpretations — and do not fix us and the world in a prison of our making. Perhaps in the tank, we can once again sneak up on ourselves and say: “Boo”!

Want to see more? Check out a video based on this blog piece:
Would you Plug into the Simulation?

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From Thought to Reality

This particular entry discusses a perspective that can be had towards Virtual Reality technology, and in so describes a certain way of understanding or relating to it. The aim is to provide, if not a theory, at least a perspective that resonates with the experience of creating and experiencing a virtual world. The perspective tries to approach an understanding of what gives the virtual its magical qualities — and how this comes to be.

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The Hobgoblin, a powerful wizard that travels through realms on his black panther. Illustration by Tove Jansson.

The Experience of Virtual Reality

VR has the capability of enchanting us. It has the power to introduce us to virtual worlds — and represent our designs in ‘the format of reality’. The content appears non-mediated, something Metzinger relates to the «phenomenal transparency» of the mind — we see «through the medium» —  and so only the content of the representation is available for introspective access. As with our mind, the underlying processes are hidden to us, and to experience VR is to experience the content it presents, not what lies beneath it.

There is a certain kind of experience that is exclusive to VR.  Finding oneself in a virtual world — orienting, navigating and interacting with it — produces an experience of a certain distinct character.  There is something intriguing, stimulating and marvelously weird in experiencing virtual realities. The experiential quality is affected by the sheer virtuality, or unreality, of it — and this, in turn, may make the illusion unexpected and beautiful. The experience has a certain quality to it: the disassociation between its unreality on the one hand and feeling of reality on the other. We know that VR is a synthesized, not-naturally-occurring experience, and further that we react to these stimuli as if they were real. Due to its unique character of offering convincing illusions, and our unique quality of, on the one hand seeing through them, and on the other being totally helpless in responding to it as if it weren’t real — we get the weird, thrilling experience of VR. The clear illusion; the transparent veil — a weaving of smoke: beautiful, but not substantial.

How did this oxymoron of technology — VR — come to be? What does it represent in us as humans? And last but not least, how should we view, relate to, and approach the emerging virtual worlds that the technology will enable for us?

Origins of Virtual Reality

A central aspect we have to address as part of this investigation is the origins of VR. Why did it arise, and what does it mean to us? This will ultimately affect the way we relate to and understand the medium. To do this, we can look into what desire of ours that the technology has fulfilled. Although we have previously discussed the History of VR this does not really account for the underlying motivations or dreams, but rather their outward results in terms of the resulting technology. Thus, when we instead want to discuss the origins of the idea of VR, we are attempting to approach technology “in its essence” — through its origin. For some readers, this may not be unfamiliar, as we have discussed this somewhat lengthy and theoretically in our three-series entry on Heidegger and VR. Here we will limit his technology criticism to a brief summary of two sentences:  Heidegger’s definition of technology as “not in itself something technological” means that the origins of the technology we use, and what it is and means to us in its essence, leans more towards an underlying ideal and thought than what it does towards different physical artifacts. Technology is, essentially, a way of viewing the world.

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Fingolfin, Elf and High King of the Noldor, in a duel against Morgoth Bauglir, fallen Melkor of the Valar. Fingolfin and Morgoth can each represent different ways of embracing technology (read below)

Virtual Reality as Thought

If we shall try to understand the earliest origin of VR, it is appropriate to consider VR as an idea. Essentially a thought, or even a dream. The dream of being able to define reality, creating a re-presentation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago. VR is a product of the creative element in humans, for good and for worse. The dream of absolute control over matter, but also, the dream of a creative medium without limitations.

Similarly to how Heidegger imagined art as the potential savior of the way technology enframes the world and ourselves, J.R.R Tolkien’s distinction of magic in the universe of The Lord of The Rings can serve as a metaphor. The Elves use their magic only for artistic purposes and are consciously aware of the difference between reality and deception — the enemy, however, uses it to deceive and control. Heidegger’s point of technology is similar — technology (techne) may separate us from a more original revealing of truth by enframing the world in a certain narrative or story, while art (poiesis) may open up reality towards new interpretations. In Tolkien’s magic for purposes of domination, there is a will that is opposed to nature and thus will have to veil nature in its bringing-forth of its ‘truth’ or end. Similarly, Heidegger’s technology, as a way of revealing-concealing, will, to achieve its success, have to enframe nature and man with it — it reduces us to mere means to ends, not ends in ourselves. Tolkien’s elves use their magic in harmony with the real world; and similarly, Heidegger’s more preferred technologies let nature be as it is, instead of enframing it as a means to an end.

How are we to think of VR according to these technology criticisms? Whether we view the potentiality of the virtual as the dream of absolute control or domination (as Morgoth would have), or rather its potential for creative revealing and enhancement of the world (Fingolfin) — we can view VR as a Technology according to Heidegger, or as Magic according to Tolkien. Readers who are interested in what or how a Heidegger or Tolkien-inspired VR-application could be can go on to read the authors position paper in one of our latest blog entries. There we discuss the concept of an existentialist design — a “controlled accident” —which does not seek to dominate the user experience, but rather open the world up to new interpretations.

Virtuality as Reality

The exploration of VR as thought, or essentially as an idea, have taken us thus far. This idea or thought of VR is, however, now more actualized than ever — and what was once primarily an idea, is now more than ever a reality that we can relate to. We are able to step in, and immerse ourselves, in worlds after our own design. We can actualize, externalize, and instantiate our designs.

B396BE8A B853 4F0D B4AE 3864C40E9985 - From Thought to Reality
Memory Palaces are systems of thought that utilizes visual and spatial cues to aid memorization.

An example of this that can illuminate the perspective of VR as thought, is the Virtual Reality Memory Palace. This ancient mnemonic (it is mentioned by Cicero in De Oratore as early as 55 BC) is based on thought: we are to close our eyes and visualize what we want to recall in the memory palace.

The memory palace is then, as the origins of VR, an idea or thought. It is internal and subjective. VR, however, allows the externalization of thought. In the same way that the idea of VR is now actualized, it allows the externalization of other ideas. We can use technology to immerse ourselves in the instantiated ideas of our mind. Is then akin to the works of Morgoth Bauglir, or Fingolfin son of Fëanor? This will depend on which thoughts are actualized: it depends on which levels of our inner being we want to realize as our outer world.

Conclusion

This entry has discussed a perspective on VR that compares it to the magic: through VR, we can define our external reality based on our inner thought. VR can be perceived as the materializer of form; the instantiator of the abstract. We described Heidegger’s explicit technology criticism and paralleled it to Tolkien’s implicit one. We also linked this to the authors position paper on a Heidegger-inspired VR technology.

For those interested, Matrise has partnered with YouTube channel Disrupt, who made a beautiful video featuring this blog piece, it can be watched here:

This entry is at the core of Matrise’s interests, and if you want further reading, these previous entries are related:

1: Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Reality

2: Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality

3: On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency

4: Heidegger’s Virtual Reality

5: The Mind as Medium

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